Whether you’re asking what technical debt is or you’re wondering if it’s similar to financial debt, you’re correct. This term might be associated with something negative as a connotation to owing money. However, just like some financial debts might in reality help to achieve important objectives faster, the same could be said about tech debt. Sometimes it’s necessary and effective management of it may generate in result great benefits.

Nonetheless, identifying technical debt is critical and is one of the main stages to managing it. This blog post will provide you with answers to the following questions:

  1. What is technical debt in software development?
  2. What causes technical debt?
  3. Why technical debt is important?
  4. Is technical debt good or bad?
  5. Should you reduce technical debt?
  6. How to manage technical debt?

What is technical debt in software development?

Ward Cunningham, a co-author of the Agile Manifesto, used technical debt to express the hidden costs of future work that are not a direct result of the tasks at hand but are necessary to do in the future. This means that some functionalities are delayed during the software development, opting for a simple but limited solution instead. It’s the outcome of putting speed above perfection in programming.

Debt arises because of speeding up the development process, changing business objectives, or reshaping the codebase. It indicates the costs that will come with a refactoring solution. To put it another way, it’s the code you’ll have to complete the next day because you’ve chosen a shortcut to hit the deadlines. Also when a modification is made, further changes are frequently required but ignored (like documentation). Changes that aren’t made can be called debt, making an interest to finish the project.

When it comes to the terminology, you could come across other terms which fundamentally mean the same concept. This includes words like code debt or design debt – relating to the low quality of code or design elements. Moreover, keep in mind that it’s most commonly associated with software development, although may be used in other fields as well. 

What causes technical debt?

First of all, technical debt may appear very quickly. The reason is that there are a lot of sources of it, and the process may start small but gradually expand to become larger. Many things may be predicted while developing a solution, and you can spend time planning the project to avoid them. But in the first place, it’s important to know what creates the debt. Knowing this might help you avoid a repeat of the same issues.

The following are some of the most common sources of technical debt:

  • time pressure and unreasonable schedules,
  • poor quality of the codebase,
  • lack of software documentation
  • lack of testing and necessary band-aid bug fixes,
  • overly complicated implementations or insufficient frameworks,
  • constant changes to the ongoing development of the project,
  • bad communication and lack of collaboration,
  • pressure from stakeholders,
  • adopting a temporary solution as the final product.

It's risky to create software by delaying on problems that need to be repaired all the time. As the number of bugs rises, addressing them gets more difficult, culminating in a terrible death cycle of technical debt.

Radosław Bułat

CIO

Why is managing technical debt important?

Improper management of technical debt can lead to serious consequences. Sometimes the case is that we are simply unaware of the accumulation of debt and when it runs out of control, it’s getting harder and harder over time to deliver new functionalities and reduce the debt and rising costs may even lead to sinking out your business. 

And to make the situation worse, the development and maintenance of your application will get more complicated, developers will struggle to deliver new functionalities so timetables are disrupted as a result of the time it takes to code around the problems. Meanwhile, consumers are suffering a thousand cuts as a result of unaddressed flaws. Some of them will abandon you.

At some point, the team is going to return to an abandoned piece of design to revise it. The longer the team waits, the more likely it’s going to cause more issues or get buried in code. The time in the future you will have to spend cleaning it up will be more demanding the longer it’s on hold. Investing more time and budget into polishing software might be better.

But on the other hand, technical debt is not always a negative or thoughtless decision.

Is technical debt good or bad?

It depends. There are legitimate reasons for technical debt, just as there are for the financial debt – but it’s crucial to recognize what is going in so that the debt doesn’t grow ahead of the team, delaying development and future deliveries.

Just the occurrence of technical debt doesn’t seem like a bad thing as long as it’s done intentionally and planned ahead of time. The origin might be the optimization of solutions to develop MVP (Minimum Viable Product). A good reason might be also when the deadline of the product is much more important than the efficiency or smoothness of the codebase. It all comes down to your business needs. 

By implementing new features in a simple form we give ourselves a chance to deliver working software faster and meet more requirements. It’s about keeping a balance between developing and quality assurance and in the end paying off the debt. As already mentioned, sweeping the problem under the rug will lead to drastically more costs and it will get out of hand quickly. Teams of software developers must be well-balanced. Examine both sides of the problem to evaluate whether or not it’s worth incurring technical debt.

Tech debt is a normal result of software development – sometimes it happens for good reason. But one of the aspects that keep consumers pleased is the absence of it.

Radosław Bułat

CIO

Should you reduce technical debt?

The key to reducing too much technical debt is to be aware of how it’s affecting your business. Without measuring, the knowledge about technical debt doesn’t matter. To acquire control over it, organizations, like any effective management strategy, need the right KPIs.

The most useful metrics to consider are:

  • Code quality. While the poor quality of code has an immediate impact on the software’s users, it may be also destructive to the development team. Code with logic mistakes signal issues that are more likely to affect overall performance quality. 
  • Level of complexity. A lot of technologies mean a higher level of complexity. But focusing on cohesiveness will save the code from becoming overly complicated. A high level of code cohesion is typically more manageable, and reusable. It also reduces the number of individuals that need to contribute to the codebase. 
  • Product bugs. Bugs in the product may cause the entire software to crash. Software engineers should at the very least be keeping track of both resolved and unresolved issues. It helps to focus and resolve them throughout iterations.
  • Ownership. This statistic is going to provide your project with a clear picture of how many people are working on different parts. More developers mean more stuff and implementation of code ownership is useful. A single person shouldn’t own a whole piece of code.

How to manage technical debt?

Realizing that there’s a problem with something is the first step to solving it. When you realize that your project has been affected by a technology debt, time is the essence when it comes to removing it. The sooner you figure out what the project’s problems are, the easier it will be to clean them up and get back on track. A code audit will also be incredibly useful in identifying all current and prospective problems.

Don’t go with shortcuts as they might result in tech debt and failure before meeting early expectations. If you have to cut corners, make sure you will resolve it later. Developing a great digital product requires time and precision, and even though the debt is unavoidable, it shouldn’t dominate your custom software development project. It’s also good to minimize your needs every iteration and prioritize activities regularly.

To avoid the problem in advance, don’t forget about automated testing whenever a developer encounters a bug. You shouldn’t only adjust your code to the existing standards but also consider the team’s pressures. Space out enough time for them so they don’t have to work on the project in a hurry and do functionality without thinking it through. Take action if you observe a decrease in team productivity and motivation.

Keep in mind that technical debt is a reality for all software developer teams. Nobody can completely escape it; the key is to keep it from spinning out of control.

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Avoiding too much technical debt

The creation of a project should be preceded by a thorough examination of the problem from multiple perspectives. Proper project management and a well-thought-out software development process are extremely important and may decide upon the success of your final project. To get to know more about our custom development process, read our Process Book.